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January 18, 2017 | by Steve Lawrence

You Can’t Afford to Ignore the Technology Revolution

New materials, robotics, 3-D printing, and artificial intelligence, just for starters, will change our lives and business models, some almost overnight.

It’s not technology that you need to worry about when you’re trying to anticipate what will happen to your industrial metals supply chain business model over the next five or 10 years.

It’s exponential technology. 

That’s the kind that develops slowly at first until it reaches an abrupt inflection point and takes off at a growth rate that can be almost straight up. Computing power is a good example. 

Exponential technologies can seem far off in their impacts, especially in the metals distribution and services industries. But suddenly they will be creating new products, new demands from your customers, new industrial processes, and a range of startling new opportunities. They are often complementary as well, that is, one quickly developing technology creates capabilities and possibilities, previously unrecognized, in others. Think how artificial intelligence (AI) has made robotics far more useful and sophisticated. 

This was the message that Vivek Wadhwa, futurist and distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University delivered recently at the MSCI Aluminum Products Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida. “We are now in the era of exponential technology,” Wadhwa said, “Practically every industry will be disrupted. In fact, this kind of technology is going to be wiping out entire industries.” 

Computing power, medical diagnosis and treatments, and communications illustrate the kind of thing that will be happening Wadhwa said. “Look at your telephone,” he said, “It has now become an all but irreplaceable tool for living and will become even more so. In 2010, that phone contained the computing power of a mouse brain, but by 2030 it will have the computing power of the human brain.”

“For manufacturers, AI and robotics mean we can do manufacturing for less than China now,” he said. And that has only been possible because of the synergies and complementary capabilities that artificial intelligence offers when embedded in smart robots. The result is that we now have robots intelligent and nimble enough to thread a needle and to assemble smart phones, laptops and tablets. “Manufacturing is coming back to the United States because of robotics,” Wadhwa said.

The list of exponential technologies is likely familiar to many. But their true impact is still not entirely recognized. Sensors will be embedded in everything from machinery to, well, humans, broadening the importance, utility and business potential of the Internet of Things far beyond what we see today. 3-D printing is already producing cars made with carbon fiber, and “China is now printing one floor a day of usable office building space,” he said. Nano technology, the manipulation of matter on an atomic and molecular level, is creating harder metals, altering their melting points and magnetic properties and their electric conductivity, among other things. 

Industry is only beginning to explore the potential of graphene, now the strongest and most flexible material on earth. It conducts heat and electricity better than any other material and most assuredly will have startling applications for industrial production. With the development too, of renewable energy, particular solar, and costs dropping every day, “the oil industry is in serious trouble,” Wadhwa said. He predicted, “In 14 years we will have enough solar capacity to meet nearly all of our global energy needs.” 

All of this will lead to dramatic change in transportation and shipping, from driverless cars and trucks, and GPS tracking to sophisticated drones. Likewise housing and the creation of so-called “smart cities” embedded with sensors and intelligence will require new construction materials and building techniques. 

And the downsides to all of this? “Every technology has a downside,” Wadhwa conceded. One of the most significant will be what we choose to do with the workers who will lose their jobs in this revolution. “I am really worried about the middle class,” he said, “We have to understand that technology is going to wipe out jobs en masse.” 

Learn more about exponential technology at upcoming MSCI conferences.